Matt Rhule has been on a media tour since last week exhibiting an extreme lack of accountability and professionalism. The former head coach of the Carolina Panthers has gone on to sign an 8-year contract to take the helm of the University of Nebraska football team. All’s well that ends well, right? Not in this case. When the latest episode of The Season with Peter Schrager podcast hit the news on Wednesday, the former Baylor and Temple coach hit new lows. He took aim at arguably the last person in the Carolinas that saw potential in him and held him in high regard: team owner David Tepper.
“At the end of the day, we talked about, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a four-year plan, a five-year plan.’ You know, if you tell me we got a two-year plan, then I’m going to go sign a bunch of free agents and do it. So what was a four-year plan became a two-year, five-game plan real quick.” Rhule went on to claim that had he known “it’s going to be that quick,” he would have signed more free agents and made the blockbuster trade. The thing is, Rhule DID sign free agents; he just was not smart about it. He came in the door putting a bad taste in the mouths of Carolina fans when he unceremoniously replaced the beloved Cam Newton with Teddy Bridgewater; signing the latter to a two-year $63 million deal. Clearly Bridgewater was meant to serve as a “bridge quarterback” but the team might as well have let Newton play out the last year of his contract with Kyle Allen as the backup. Instead, the Panthers found themselves with the same questions at the position one season later. After trading Bridgewater away for peanuts to the Denver Broncos, Rhule and co. made another absolute head scratcher of a move by trading away their sixth-round 2021 pick and their second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 to the New York Jets for Sam Darnold. After passing on quarterback Justin Fields and drafting cornerback Jaycee Horn with the No. 8 pick in the draft instead, the team picked up Darnold’s fifth year option. I would say the Darnold decision was sight unseen, but it wasn’t. There was plenty of tape on the former No. 3 pick – and the film was BAD. All of this to have to turn around and ring up Newton in efforts to salvage the season. So as it stands, the Panthers were paying Newton’s replacement (Bridgewater), Newton’s replacement’s replacement (Darnold), and Newton last season. After crashing out in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes in March, the team settled for Baker Mayfield a few weeks before training camp. By all intents and purposes, that looks to be another fail at the quarterback position; at least this time they didn’t break the bank and got Mayfield for a bargain.
Rhule, ever the side stepper of accountability, claims he didn’t make those draft picks. “Sometimes articles come out after you get fired that go, ‘Hey, why didn’t you guys get Justin Herbert?’ Well, ya know, because he got drafted in front of us. And, ya know, I wasn’t the GM. I didn’t make the picks. I had a lot of input. I worked with two great guys in Marty Hurney and Scott Fitterer.” Add two more speed bumps to the bus route why don’t you? Included in his massive seven-year, $62 million contract was language mandating that Rhule had final say on the roster. A roster that failed to address the glaring issues on the offensive line. A roster that saw Russell Okung added on the first day of free agency amongst other suspect moves.
Another trademark of Rhule’s time in Carolina was the practice of him talking out of both sides of his mouth – a term used for contradictory language. Drafting all-defense and having the youngest roster in the NFL in his first year sent a message of development or the dreaded word “rebuild” that we were constantly told was not reflective of this front office’s intentions. In the second-year, however, an in-season trade for cornerback Stephon Gilmore as the team stood 3-0 suggests otherwise. As report after report came in regarding Rhule’s tyrannical approach in his first NFL head coaching position, the Panthers locker room remained professional and united – even as their coach threw several players under the bus in post game and in-week press conferences.
It felt like there was a bit of a power shift this past offseason with perhaps general manager Scott Fitterer given more control over roster decisions. Fitterer set an intention to focus on the offensive and defensive lines and those efforts are evident in the offensive line’s best showing in several years. Even still, Rhule’s insistence on a “quarterback battle” that dragged on for most of the preseason. Splitting reps didn’t allow Mayfield to gel with his linemen or receivers and that’s been evident as well. DJ Moore – who has shown that he can pretty much produce with anyone at quarterback – was on a milk carton for the first five weeks with Mayfield under center. With back to back five-win seasons, heads rolled and the excuses rolled with them. One excuse was that the team had no offensive identity with All Pro running back Christian McCaffrey missing the majority of Rhule’s first two seasons. However, there are 11 players on the field. Get it done. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady was relieved of his duties during the bye week last season after holding crash courses with Newton to get the former MVP up to speed on the playbook. Position coaches were fired, players were not re-signed, but Rhule remained.
It’s funny that Rhule told Schrager that he would have signed more free agents and made a blockbuster trade when Carolina was not an enticing place to play. It wasn’t even an enticing place to coach because of Rhule. I assure you, Ben McAdoo was not the “rockstar” hire that Tepper was thinking of, but Pep Hamilton – a North Carolina native – declined the interview request. After all, who wanted to be on the staff of a lame duck coach? When Steve Wilks returned to Carolina, this time as the secondary coach, I already knew what time is was and so did Tepper. As things stood, I did not expect Rhule to make it to Week Eight. Not because he didn’t have a capable roster, but because he had not shown an ability to get the best out of his players at the NFL level. On paper, this Panthers team had at least Wild Card potential but instead, they sat at 1-4 before Rhule was given his walking papers.
Wilks did not walk into an enviable position. Darnold, Mayfield, and 2022 draft pick Matt Corral were all out with ankle injuries. A week into his interim position, two starters were traded away in McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson. Several defensive starters were out with injury as well. Wilks has managed to inject the “Keep Pounding” culture into this team and as they go into the bye week, they’re a game back in the NFC South division at 4-8. While that record isn’t stellar, the team has been playing with a different intensity and a different sense of pride. Veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson said, “(Steve) Wilks is bringing back what the Carolina Panthers used to be.”
That very thing is the reason we are seeing and hearing way too much of Rhule as he goes on a “it ain’t my fault” media run. One has to wonder if we would be getting these unsolicited viewpoints if the team was still struggling. I think not. Rhule is behaving like that ex that can’t stand to see their former lover flourishing without them – it would become evident that he was the problem and he simply can’t have that, right?
“You know, there’s a good defense there and I give [interim coach] Steve [Wilks] all the credit, I give the coaches all the credit, but I am a part of that building process. Had that just stayed for maybe through this year, and maybe made the big free-agent signing this year to get them over the top, I think that the Panthers could win the NFC South for years to come.” In true Rhule fashion, he wants the credit but none of the criticism; it doesn’t work like that. He was back on a podcast Thursday morning with more of the same rhetoric. “Hopefully when people look back on my time, they’ll say, ‘You know what? He never, he never, he never threw anyone under the bus. He never made an excuse.’ No decision was made at the Carolina Panthers when I was there that was made by me unilaterally.”
At the end of the day, hardly anyone is looking back at Rhule’s time with Carolina. They are focused on getting the team’s first road win after the bye and battling for the NFC South division title. He should take his time in Carolina, draw upon it as a learning experience and focus the task at hand in Lincoln. This franchise is on the mend from a toxic “it’s complicated” situationship and looking toward the future. The very least Rhule can do is let the Panthers heal in peace.